Pass the Baguette, but Not the Whole Thing
A Boston dietician eats her way through Paris.
On the eve of a milestone birthday, I had the opportunity to leave behind my little Back Bay aparment and travel to Paris, France. While I am a dietitian by trade, I'm also a food lover. Just like you, I appreciate a thoughtfully prepared meal, artisanal drinks and long laughs at the dinner table. Like many Americans, I am intrigued by that notion of the thin, buttered-baguette eating French woman. Is our perception of French eating anything like the reality?
Here's what I discovered in a week of wandering the City of Lights with the purpose of eating well:
1. Meals are a process, in the best way. Unless you have close to two hours to spare, I would not suggest sitting down at a French café or restaurant. In a café, you can order as little or as much as you want and you are welcome to stay for as long as you’d like; it’s sublime. This is not a drive-through city. The French do not rush through their meals and as a dietitian I appreciate that. I did not see a single person eating or drinking while walking, snacks are minimal and food is eaten almost exclusively at the table. As a member of the on-the-go, never-enough-time society, this was a welcome reminder to step away from the computer, take a bit of time and focus on the food.
2. Dessert is divine, but more about quality than quantity. Following every meal, I was offered dessert and of the seven nights I spent there, I indulged two times. I enjoyed a delicious small cream puff one night and a fig tart the other; I am still dreaming of them. I observed many Parisians enjoying dessert at the end of the meal, but it was in a small single-serving. I followed the lead of those Parisians and savored each bite I took; might as well—there is no rush at these restaurants! One favorite is Le Bon Marché’s Le Grande Epicerie De Paris, which serves beautiful individual desserts and other gourmet items. They also sell food scales, which further highlighted their attention to portion size.
3. Of course, staying fit isn't only about the food. Paris is not a sedentary city. Runners were everywhere. As a runner myself, I appreciated how many Parisians I saw either en route to the gym or on jogs. Who would not want to run in this beautiful city? I spotted many Parisians out along the Seine jogging or biking to work. People walk everywhere. I also noted many gyms and health clubs and happened to run through sign-ups for a Nike race outside the Louvre. While Parisians appear to indulge in delicious food, they are also out moving and burning off those cream puffs!
4. Remember, balance is not impossible. It was not hard to strike a healthy balance of moderation and indulgence when it came to eating while in Paris. As mentioned above, I set aside two nights of my trip to eat dessert and tried to limit snacking on sweets during the day (not an easy things—have you seen those macarons?). I tried to stick to my usual healthy eating routine while on vacation, which makes it much easier to fit into my jeans and transition back to regular life in Boston. At breakfast, I tried to fill up on fruit and Greek yogurt. Lunch was generally a beautiful salade niçoise or salmon spinach salad. I limited bread to one piece or less per meal. Wine was served at most cafes and restaurants in 4-oz servings; I tried to drink one glass of wine and two glasses of water with meals. Dinner options generally included a vegetable side and lean proteins like fish and chicken were almost always available.
It is a pleasure indulging in Parisian fare like the French—which is to say in moderation. I am impressed by the culture's ability to focus on the quality of a meal and take the time to savor their food. Science shows that setting aside time to eat free of distraction allows your body to truly feel hunger and fullness, which I believe leads to less mindless eating later on. This is an active city that appears to enjoy moving as much as they enjoy food. The reality is that as society we need to make time to eat more healthfully and be active. It's easier said than done, but we can certainly try, no?
Here are some tips you can take from Parisians on how to have your French pastry, and eat it too.
- Slow down. Allow yourself at least 20 minutes to eat a meal.
- Separate yourself from distractions and focus on the food.
- Pick a few dessert nights a week and stick to them. The other nights, fill up on fruit if you are still feeling hungry following a meal.
- Get out there and get active! If you are a morning person, set aside a few mornings per week to schedule in your exercise by signing up for a class or finding a running buddy. If nighttime is easier for you, bring your gym clothes along with you and change before leaving the office or house.
- Practice the 80/20 rule; if you eat healthy 80% of the time, then 20% of the time you get to live it up! Savor those moments and get right back on track the next day.